Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘MFA

“Do you have a restless urge to write?”

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On Monday, I was browsing the dollar bin at the Housing Works Bookstore—possibly my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, aside, of course, from the Strand—when I found a paperback copy of Couples by John Updike. (It’s Updike’s trashiest novel, and probably his best, or at least the only one I feel the urge to read again every year.) Inside the book was tucked a copy of the following advertisement. Click on the image below for more detail:

And here’s the other side:

Bennett Cerf was one of the most famous publishers of his time—I still have fond memories of his Book of Laughs—but if the Famous Writers School looks like something of a scam, well, it was. Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death is one of the great classics of investigative journalism, wrote a savage takedown of the school in the Atlantic Monthly that is still worth reading today. Basically, and I’m simplifying only a little here, the school would employ salesmen to convince housewives to pay $900 for a correspondence course that they could have obtained at a local college for a fraction of the price. None of the writers pictured in the advertisement ever looked at students’ assignments, which were graded by an overworked staff of freelancers. And the school’s entire business model depended on the fact that few students would ever finish the course.

Yet thousands of people still signed up. And I can’t help but be reminded of this story in light of yesterday’s announcement that the Curtis Brown Agency is opening its own writing school, charging students $2,500 apiece for a three-month writing workshop. The big lure: “Stand-out students will be offered representation.” Of course, there’s no telling how many students will be signed by the agency, or to what extent this workshop is intended primarily to generate revenues at a difficult time for publishing. But even if the workshop is everything it promises, it still raises the question of how useful any kind of paid education is for writers. Is the Curtis Brown workshop, or the Famous Writers School, any better or worse than a standard MFA program?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never taken a formal writing class, despite having gone to a college populated by more than its share of established and aspiring novelists. And my gut instinct is to say that such classes, aside from the professional connections they might (or might not) provide, are probably unnecessary for the majority of writers. What a writer needs, above all else, is readers—a handful of intelligent people who will criticize and praise the writer’s work in appropriate measure. A writer needs to read—the great, good, and indifferent books of all eras, as well as a few of the best books on writing itself. And a writer needs to write—as often as possible, ideally every day. A formal class is primarily useful, it seems to me, in providing a structured setting for these three things, which any sufficiently motivated writer could probably find on his or her own. (Which is why a correspondence course like that of the Famous Writers School, which advertises itself as “a class of one,” is presumably not the best option.)

It might be argued that the same principle applies to any kind of formal education, at least in the humanities: with access to a library, interesting friends, and a lot of personal discipline, a student can receive more or less the same education that he or she would receive as a college undergraduate. (T.S. Eliot, among others, was openly contemptuous of the idea of studying English literature in college, which might be done equally well, or so he argued, in the student’s spare time.) Of course, without the social and professional benefits of an accredited program, it’s going to be hard to find work as, say, a professor of classics. But writing is one of the few professional fields that still welcomes autodidacts—which is one of the things that makes it so interesting, and terrifying.

In the end, every writer, even a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is essentially self-taught. Which is why I feel that the best way might still be to go it alone. (If you’re serious about being a writer, you’ll eventually find yourself going it alone anyway.)

MFA, NYC, and the Classics

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On Friday, Slate published a long article, which originally appeared in N+1, about the dueling literary cultures of New York City and the typical MFA graduate program. The article is a bit of a slog—the author, Chad Harbach, while clearly talented and smart, veers uncertainly between jargon words like “normative” and precious coinages like “unself-consciousness”—but it’s hard not to grant one of its underlying points: that it’s now possible for a writer to make a comfortable living, primarily as a teacher, by appealing to a tiny slice of academic readers, and that this approach is, if anything, easier, safer, and more of a sure thing than the writing of “commercial” fiction, even as it manages to portray itself as the more honest and authentic way of life.

Now, I don’t have an MFA. And I’m the author of what is intended, frankly, as a big mainstream novel. (Whether it succeeds or not is another matter entirely.) But I do know what Harbach means when he notes that MFA programs are becoming “increasingly preprofessorial”—that is, a credential on the way to a teaching job, rather than preparation for a life as a working writer. It’s a trajectory that seems very similar to that of the Classics, which is something I know about firsthand.

There was a time, or so some would like to believe, when a classical education was seen as an essential part of one’s training for the larger world: it was taken for granted that our lawyers, doctors, and politicians should know some Latin and Greek. These days, though, such departments seem primarily interested in training future professors of Classics. And, perhaps as a direct result, there are fewer and fewer Classics majors every year. (In my graduating class, there were something like fourteen, out of a student body of sixteen hundred.)

The same thing, I think, is likely to happen to MFA departments, if they continue along the track that Harbach describes. If author/professors continue to produce short stories exclusively for one another, interest in literary fiction will gradually die, no matter how many anthologies continue to “disseminate, perpetuate, and replenish” the canon. Like the Classics, university writing programs will remain a comfortable career option for a lucky few, but enrollment will inevitably decline, along with the sense of urgency and risk that all good fiction requires.

The major difference between an MFA and a Classics degree, of course, is that the former is much easier. That, too, is likely to change, especially if, as Harbach tentatively predicts, the MFA comes to focus more on the novel, rather than the short story, and continues to put its primary emphasis on literary theory. After all, with only so many tenured professorships available, there has to be some way to thin out the crowd. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the Classics. If you want to restrict a field to the professorial class, such an approach certainly works. It works only all too well.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Tagged with , , , ,

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